I look back at my tattooing career and a couple of things are pretty clear. One is that I sucked for a really long time at tattooing and didn’t realize it, and two, that I could have had about 5000% less stress if I had sought out the advice and knowledge of people who had been tattooing for a lot longer than me. Instead, I spent an embarrassing amount of time and energy worrying about shit that was, in hindsight, the exact wrong things to be spending that energy on. I hate to see people making the same mistakes that I did and if my experience can help one person not bang their head against the same walls I did then I can feel that at least my learning the hard way was not completely in vain.
So, if you have already been tattooing for 10+ years what I’m about to write really wont come as much of a surprise to you,but these are the things that I wish someone would have shared with me in my first 5 years of tattooing, it would have saved me a lot of headaches!
1. Get critiqued!
Of all the things that we do to improve the most important might be to get critiqued on your tattoos. It hurts to hear that you are failing at certain aspects, but the amazing thing is that until you hear it you almost never see it! If you can take a critique without getting butthurt then your work will begin to improve immediately. I had been bumbling along for a couple of years turning out mediocre crap when I stumbled across an online tattooers forum where they were exchanging critiques, I blithely put a couple of my tattoos that I thought were pretty good and proceeded to get my balls so thoroughly busted that I seriously considered quitting tattooing (as several critiquers had suggested) It really hurt to hear how bad I was and yet that very hurt opened my eyes to several bad habits I had and were not even aware of. It also revealed that not only did I not do good tattoos, but that I didn’t even really know what a good tattoo looked like! The critique was the first step to opening my eyes, and as he years have gone on I still ask for critiques all the time, in person or online I find that knowing a fellow tattooer will be looking at my work keeps me from taking lazy shortcuts with my tattoos since I know a tattooer will spot them!
When getting critiqued sit down, open your ears, and shut the fuck up! A critique is a chance to see your work with a new pair of eyes not a place for you to defend your work! The tattoo you apply to a client will have to stand or fall on its own merit without you there to explain it for the rest of the client’s life, so if it needs to be defended or explained then you have failed to do it correctly. A fellow tattooer who takes the time and effort to give you a critique is giving you a gift, you should receive it that way, with humility and grace. If your fragile ego can’t take hearing someones opinion about your tattoo then you might be in the wrong line of work.
2. The secret to tattooing is repetition.
I have heard the old saying “art is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration” hundreds of times before I finally actually understood it. The fact is that very few of us are such prodigies that we can draw everything a tattooer needs to on the first try. I finally began to understand that the way to improve me work was repetition (practice). In order for our creative ideas to flow effortlessly from our minds to our hands we must have trained those muscles to the point where they can do what we ask of them without having to think about it! In martial arts the training is repetitive and ritualistic, musicians play scales and practice chords over and over, in both cases the reason is not so that they can be really good at practicing martial arts or playing chords, it is so that when the time comes to fight (or play) that the person will do so automatically without having to consciously decide what to do. If a jazz musician had to think about his next not he would never be able to play the improvisational music that he or she does, it is the result of muscle memory that lets them play so effortlessly.
The same holds true for tattooing, we must perform the same action over and over until our muscles respond to our imagination without having to go through the brain to do it! Years ago I wanted to learn to draw Japanese finger waves, every time I would try the image I saw in my head as beautiful graceful arching waves came out looking like shitty goo and no amount of trying seemed to help! I looked for shortcuts, asked other tattooers for “formulas” and tricks, I tried to figure out the “secret” of masterful Japanese tattooers like Filip Leu and Horiyoshi 3 all to no avail. Eventually I gave up and, like I had so many times before resigned myself to the fact that I just didn’t have the talent to do these fuckin’ waves like my heroes did. Instead, I began doodling waves every chance I got. little ones, big ones, when I was on the phone or eating lunch I would jot down a few sketchy finger-waves and an interesting thing began to happen. My waves began to get better! Not immediately, and not in big leaps, but I began to notice that slowly I was beginning to make the waves on paper look like the ones in my head. I probably drew several hundred waves that year and these days I can freehand them onto the clients skin without thinking about it. All because of Practice, boring old tiresome practice.
It may seem like common sense to you, dear reader, that practice makes perfect, but I really believed that if I tried to draw something and it came out badly the first time that I was simply not able to do it. Almost all of us artists act like we were born with the abilities we have now, but it is simply not true, we all got to wherever we are by repetition. And if you want to really excel at something the best way is to draw it over and over again til you are sick to death of that image, until you can see it in your sleep. Fortunately for us tattooers the act of drawing uses the same muscle-memory as the act of tattooing so that each minute spent drawing is almost the same as a minute spent tattooing.
3. There are trends in tattooing, and you will follow them.
There are years that owls are popular and there are years that fairies are popular and no matter how cool and unique you are, you will be doing these trends. You could be the most exclusive, visionary, custom tattooer in the history of tattooing and you will find yourself wanting to do a lighthouse tattoo because you saw 15 of them on people’s arms around town. The trick is not to try to force a client out of their idea, it is to bring your own signature into that image. Doing the 300th switch blade tattoo is only dumb if you are looking at the last guys version of it and doing the same thing instead of drawing your own. Which brings us to #4
4. Use reference.
When I say reference I’m not talking about tattoo magazines, instagram, or your buddies arm either. Other tattooers art can be a reference, but really should only be used to see how he or she solved a particular technical problem (like “how did they do the shading on that wing so it didn’t blend into the background?”) Far too often we see a tattoo that is a copy of another tattoo (which is a copy of a further tattoo etc.) The result of this is the same as taking an original painting and then photocopying it, then copying the copy, etc. After just a couple of generations the spark, the detail, and the structure of the original are lost and you are left with a play-dohy looking half assed version with little to no of the bits that made the original so appealing.
If you are going to draw a rose then look at pictures (or even a real one) of an actual flower not a tattoo of one. When you look at real reference, our brain picks out the subtle details it likes and these end up in your drawing making it unique and distinctive in a sea of copycat artwork. How many times do we have to see the same koi fish that has anime eyes, goofy kissy-lips, a dorsal fin that looks like a mowhawk plus an overall resemblance to a flaccid dick!? Just look at a real goddamn koi for 30 seconds and you will notice that most tattoos are missing half the fins, have tiny tails and giant hydrocephaly heads! And, no it is not just your “artistic interpretation”, it is laziness. There is an obvious difference when someone knows the correct way to draw an object and deliberately chooses to tweak it versus some goofball just half assing it because he or she is too lazy to go to a real reference point before beginning. Even the most conceptual artists in the world , the Dalis and Picassos, had learned the basics of anatomy and rendering before they went off on their own trips, and without that fundamental grounding their work would not have looked “right” even at their most expressively unconventional. If you want to be an artistic innovator then first learn the fundamentals, and you do that with reference. Do just 5 minutes of reference and your drawings will be improved dramatically almost instantly. With the internet at your fingertips you really have no excuse for not pulling up a picture of a real object before you draw it (even if you are not drawing it realistically!)
5. Your style will come on its own.
I used to really worry that my work didn’t look unique enough, or that it just looked like “everybody else “. Like most of us in the western world I wanted to start making masterpieces and monuments to myself on day one. The fact is that I didn’t even have a basic handle on the technical aspects of tattooing and here I was wanting to be someone who people would recognize from my “style”. Like a person who wants to sound like they are from Britain affecting a fake accent, there is something clearly phony which always comes through when you are trying too hard to be unique. It was only when I began to study Japanese tattooing that I understood that style is something that develops rather than being created. In the ShuHaRi method is a concept which also shows up in martial arts, Zen training and now, tattoos as well. It’s deceptively simple, first you learn the tradition the way you are taught (SHU or “Obey”), Second you perfect that method until it becomes your second nature (or to put it in modern terms, until it is in your “muscle memory”) when you can then begin to do your own version and this is “HA” (or “break”) and finally you go beyond both your tradition and your own style into something transcendent of what came before (“RI” or “leaving”) . Put into tattoo terms I realized that I was trying to transcend before I had even learned the traditions, trying to run before I even knew how to walk. As you practice your artwork your effort should be in perfecting your drawings first, your own personal “style” will be there naturally, but only when you quit trying to have it! Otherwise it is like someone telling you to “act naturally”, as soon as you try, you end up being awkward and stilted. Even worse is copying another, better, tattooers signature moves. We are all influenced by the best in this art form, but it is painfully obvious when someone is trying to consciously emulate one of the greats.
Style is something that comes when your mind and hand work in unison effortlessly and the natural variations your unique mind comes up with can show up in your work, it takes time, but by working on the fundamentals it does come on its own.
6. Progress seems to be connected to humility.
In short, the point where a tattooer begins to get cocky, to feel that he or she knows what is the “right” kind of tattooing or when they decide that the customers are impediments to their creative genius is the point where they seem to stop growing. I’ve seen young tattooers who were getting really good very quickly suddenly plateau and stop improving and it was always that moment when they decided they were king shit on the turdpile. It’s sad to see because any tattooer with a pair of eyes can recognize that the very best tattooers in the world are also some of the humblest, and the rest of the guys who are “almost there” are the arrogant dicks. Humbleness and hard work are worth more than all the talent in the world in tattooing.
7. Dont chase money
Very few of us had any sort of success immediately. I had about 10 years of barely making ends meet and every winter was a terrifying balancing act of living on one or two tattoos a week and trying to make up the difference with the meager savings I had from summers (relatively) busier times. However if you can build a reputation as a good artist without being a dick and without being hard to find then eventually you will find yourself with a clientage who love your work and support you. Its like starting off at the bottom of the ladder in the normal working world and eventually making your way to being a CEO, it doesn’t happen quickly, but if you don’t sabotage yourself it does happen. One thing that helps is to stick around the same area for a while, traveling is fun and builds experience that is invaluable, but it makes it hard to build a name for yourself with the folks in your area who will come to see you as “their” artist.
8. “Keep your head down, do your best, don’t worry what the other guy is doing.”
I read those words in the excellent Sailor Jerry letters book published by Hardy Marks. Like many tattooers I spent a lot of time and energy worrying about, being mad at, and bitching about what other people were doing. I complained that tattooing was being ruined, that this or that guy was making “us” look bad, that this or that new trend was not “real” tattooing. In short I was a bitchy tattooer like 80% of tattooer still are. Every second I spent writing angry cry-baby shit online or sitting around belly-aching is time and energy I should have been putting into my goddamn art! I am convinced that I would be a year ahead of where I am today if I had spent all that effort on what really matters, namely, getting better at tattooing. The fact is that tattooing will never look like we think it “ought” to, if you really want tattooing to be a certain way the ONLY thing you can actually Do about it (and bitching is not doing anything about it) is to do your very best to make your little corner of tattooing “right”. Believe it or not, you putting effort into your own tattooing changes the whole thing more than a years worth of gripe sessions and online rants can.
9. That “AHA!” moment will happen to you.
One year I was at a convention and was crying to a fellow tattooer (who had much more experience) that I felt like I still didn’t get “it”. I still felt technically inadequate, I didn’t really understand tattoo machines, and I couldn’t really draw the way I saw in my mind and I had been doing tattoos for a whole 5 years at that point! He just smirked and said “fuck man, none of us knew what we were doing at 5 years!” and it hit me! Here I had been thinking 5 years was a long time to be tattooing and to this guy that was just getting started! From that day on I relaxed a little bit and began to realize that tattooing was going to be a looooong road, the rest of my life! There were other Ah ha! moments as well, like the day I realized I was no longer afraid of any tattoo on any part of the body, the day I realized that drawing a sleeve or back piece was no more intimidating than drawing a small piece, the day I realized I rarely fiddled with my machines looking for that “perfect” tuning anymore, and the day I told a customer I wouldn’t do their tattoo and they thanked me for being honest.
There will come a time when you are confident in your knowledge and abilities. It will be the result of years of hard work, tiny bits of knowledge piling up, and of all the lessons that setbacks and mistakes have taught you. The coolest part is that if you keep your head out of your ass, that upward path never needs to stop.
10. Have fun
tattooing is fun, hard work, but still fun. Take a moment now and then to stop, smell the green-soap and take it all in. The years begin to fly by as we get older and those shitty, stressful, early years begin to look pretty sweet in hindsight.